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As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on his own people, Washington has turned a blind eye for fear of what new regime might emerge. But it’s impossible for a new leader to be worse.

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Protest in Damascus on April 17, 2011. (Still from amateur video via BBC)
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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is every bit as dangerous and thuggish as his autocratic counterparts across the Middle East, yet for some reason Washington continues to embrace him

After more than a month of essentially siding with the Syrian regime as it slaughters peaceful demonstrators in the streets, the White House finally had strong words for President Bashar al-Assad. “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the use of force by the Syrian government against demonstrators,” President Barack Obama said in a statement, as the death toll climbed into the hundreds. “This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.”

But what if it doesn’t come to an end? Last Friday more than a hundred people were killed in 18 cities and villages around Syria. Another 100 disappeared with no record of their arrest. On Saturday, snipers shot mourners trying to bury their dead. On Monday, tanks and infantry units surrounded the city of Deraa, where the uprising first broke out six weeks ago. So far, at least 400 are dead, a higher total than in Egypt, which has roughly four times the population of Syria.

So, what should Washington do next? Previously, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that the United States intervened on behalf of the armed Libyan rebels because the regime’s forces were firing on their own people from airplanes. Presumably, then, so long as Assad continues using only tanks, snipers, and battalions of army troops against peaceful demonstrators, he is safe. There are rumors of sanctions that may target Assad’s brother, who has led some of the shock troops against protesters, but probably not the president himself. As one administration official explained, Assad “sees himself as a Westernized leader … and we think he’ll react if he believes he is being lumped in with brutal dictators.”

There is some legitimate concern about what happens if Assad falls. Who will rule Syria next? Perhaps, as Assad warns, there is a powerful Islamist current that will come to power in this Sunni majority (70 percent) country now controlled by a ruling clique drawn from the minority Alawite sect. But Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, decimated the Muslim Brotherhood during the ’70s and ’80s, culminating in the 1982 destruction of Hama, where tens of thousands of Syrians were slaughtered by the country’s security forces. Most of Syria’s Salafist groups have been penetrated by the regime and used against its adversaries in Lebanon and Iraq. So, the Islamist current in Syria is hardly as powerful or cohesive as Assad’s apologists make it out to be.

The Obama Administration’s cautious Syria policy is not pragmatic and realist; it is, rather, an ideological fantasy. The White House is worried not about what happens to U.S. interests after Assad, but about how to salvage a campaign promise that has been thwarted by reality. The Obama White House is sheltering Assad for the same reason it was slow to support Iran’s green movement when it took to the streets in June 2009. Just as Obama held out hope for talking to the Islamic Republic, he still wants to engage Syria. The Obama Administration’s entire Middle East policy is premised on getting Damascus back to the negotiating table with Israel. Accomplishing that goal, the administration believes, will not only win the United States the favor of the Arab and Muslim masses, but it will also drive a wedge between Syria and its ally Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has always been pessimistic that Washington could separate Damascus and Tehran. Nonetheless, official Israel isn’t saying much these days, because no one has any idea of what follows the Assads, or if it would be better or worse for Israel. The Assads have kept the border on the Golan quiet since 1973, even as they’ve waged war against the Jewish State through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, built secret nuclear facilities, maintained thousands of missiles armed with chemical warheads pointed at Israeli cities, and aligned their interests with Iran. In spite of this, there are almost as many Israeli officials as there are U.S. policymakers who believe Syria wants a peace deal—Defense Minister Ehud Barak most prominent among them.

And yet over the last 30 years it is Syria more than any actor that has brought war to Israel, on its borders and within, through terrorist assets and allies. If Damascus has not itself waged direct state-to-state war on the Jewish State, it is not because it doesn’t want to but because it cannot. Nor can it make peace with Israel. Forget for a moment the strategic reasons why Syria can’t sign a deal—that if Israel returns the Golan Heights as part of a full peace agreement the Damascus regime loses a legitimacy based on its war footing, or that without war against Israel, Syria no longer gets to burnish its prestige by bargaining with Washington. Consider instead the nature of the regime: A ruling clique whose snipers shoot its own children is not going to make peace with its own people, let alone with Israel.

The other problem with the fantasy of a Syrian peace track is that the peace process no longer exists. Obama unwittingly threw it under the bus when he abandoned Egypt President Hosni Mubarak, who kept the peace with Israel for more than 30 years at some personal risk to his own life. By trashing Mubarak, the White House showed that the so-called peace process isn’t really all that important to Washington. In Egypt, winning the love of the masses meant siding with the young social media activists-cum-populists and the Muslim Brotherhood when they wanted to pull down a U.S. ally who supported the most consequential peace treaty between the Arabs and Israel.

Nonetheless, the Obama White House has no other tricks up its sleeve in the Middle East. The Palestinian track has become reduced to Washington, the one-time regional power-broker, now petitioning Abbas to refrain from unilaterally announcing statehood. The hopelessness of the Israeli-Palestinian track is one reason why the administration keeps insisting Assad live up to his billing in Washington as a “reformer.” In reality, Assad put away any thought of reform a little less than a year after he took power following his father Hafez’s death in 2000. The so-called Damascus Spring was short-lived because Assad, only 35 at the time, knew then what the 82-year-old Mubarak would only understand when it was too late—opening the door to reform gives your opponents enough leverage to push it wide open and toss you out.

In the aftermath of Mubarak’s downfall, no Arab regime has failed to observe the lesson. Hence, instead of reforming a vicious political system that permits Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family to treat the country’s Shia majority as second-class citizens, the government of Bahrain called in a 4,000-strong Gulf Cooperation Council force to terrorize Shia. Instead of reforming their medieval system, the Saudi royal family merely bought off their subjects with a $93 billion bribe.

When Obama officials call Assad a reformer, they are not making excuses for Assad but for themselves. Were they to admit to themselves and others that the Syrian president is a serial murderer of his own people as well as of Americans and their allies around the region, including Iraqis, Lebanese, Israelis, and Palestinians, Washington might have to design a new Syria policy. But in place of a rational intellect and a moral center, all the White House has is an imaginary peace process, a pipe dream that requires the “reform-minded” Bashar al-Assad to come to his senses and engage with Washington.

America’s special treatment of Syria long precedes the Obama Administration, as I’ve noted. U.S. diplomats have been coloring the Assads (the son and before him the father) in favorable hues ever since the family came to power. “Hafez always keeps his word” was the favored slogan of U.S. envoys for years, even as the Syrian president’s terrorist assets killed U.S. citizens and allies. American policymakers just back from Damascus liked to describe Hafez as a tough bargainer who can talk for hours straight without permitting his interlocutors to go to the bathroom. That is to say, U.S. officials turned the degradation that Hafez served them into a gourmet meal.

In the end, concern over who follows Assad is just another way of covering for the inadequacies of Washington’s Syria policy. It doesn’t matter who rules Syria—whether it’s ruled by the country’s well-educated merchant class, the Islamists, or, while unlikely, a broad multi-sectarian coalition of liberal democrats. Maybe, as one Lebanese journalist told me recently in Beirut, no one will rule Syria for some time. One likely scenario for Syria is that it will return to its pre-Assad character, scored by coups and counter-coups, a country that is a problem only for itself and incapable of exporting its problems to its neighbors as Damascus has done for the past 40 years—with Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, as well as Israel.

Sure, things can always get worse, especially in the Middle East. But not in Syria. It can’t get any worse than the Assads’ regime, or, rather, what could be worse? A regime that actually fires those chemical warheads at Israel, or activates its secret nuclear program and builds a bomb? The only limits the regime in Damascus knows are those that have been imposed from without, and not often enough by Washington. The end of this cancer might go a long way toward healing an American policymaking community whose Syria policies have been riddled with moral sickness for almost half a century.

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Forest says:

Great analysis. American foreign policy under Obama is based on wishful thinking and not on reality.

Thoughts of a Canadian in China: Whether due to sheer ineptitude or by sinister design, the disaster that is current USA foreign policy in the Middle East will probably soon invite other players to seize this historic opportunity of USA mismanagement and decline. In this regard, there are only too many parallels with the 1930’s. Iran is Nazi Germany. Israel is Czechoslovakia. Obama plays the role of Neville Chamberlain. The Europeans are cast as their feckless selves. The fact of weakness and the perception of weakness are together often one of the principal causes of major wars. Round the world Obama is feared perhaps only in Israel. However, what some USA pollsters call “the political class” inhabit an ideological bubble, wherein there are all the answers and nothing but praise for Obama (“the dear leader”) who is imagined to be intelligent, wise and capable. But, in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran nobody of any weight thinks that Obama is intelligent, wise and capable. For those outside “the political class,” there has been enough time to take the measure of the man, and consequently the enemies of the USA are greatly emboldened. At home, perhaps too many Americans are still distracted by economic woes. Nonetheless, there have been some recent opinion polls showing that confidence in Obama’s handling of foreign policy is beginning to slip. And to be sure, there will probably be lots more bitter criticism in the months to come as the USA struggles to deal with the fallout from the growing international disorder that the Obama administration seems to consistently encourage. Can it possibly be that such a great country as the USA is unable to produce a solid candidate worthy of the presidency? With an eye to 2012, this can be asked of both Republicans and Democrats. However, in the nature of things, the burden is today on the Republican Party to get serious and find an experienced standard bearer fully qualified to lead the USA in the very troubled times ahead.

Another tour de force for Lee Smith. I mostly agree. What could be worse than the Assad gang now in power? Would a Sunni-dominated regime, even with the MB inside, continue to strengthen the Hizbullah in Lebanon against the Lebanese Sunnis?

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

I wish to address myself to those eager for Israel to take additional security risks, place the nation-state of the Jewish people in a compromising position and have Israel’s Jews in harm’s way, and all for the sake of an unknown “peace”.

Look carefully how the Muslim-Arabs slaughter their own young, be it in Tunisia and Libya; in Egypt and Yemen; in Jordan and Syria and beyond in the none Arab Muslim world of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On what basis do you think these very Muslim-Arab forces would apply a more gentle hand when they place it on the Jewish young of Israel if they only could…??

Thus, next time, view carefully the butchery that is happening throughout the Muslim-Arab world and, if you care for Israel and its Jewish population, be thankful that Israel does insists on not crossing some red lines of national and security interests, despite the pressure that comes from the White House, and from other capital cities in Europe.

You see, the first of all human rights is the right to live and to protect one’s life, one that is applicable to Jews as well. Israel is simply doing its job: apply the right of the Jews of Israel to live and to protect their own lives.

Won’t you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow Jews in Israel…??

Les Miller says:

Ryan Lizza addresses the Obama foreign policy struggles in this week’s New Yorker. Establishing a consistent policy, let alone a correct policy, is close to impossible. And once Obama, probably against his own beliefs, enunciated the “Obama Doctrine” in Libya, he threw all his chips into the pot for idealism and action. Our key regional allies in the region, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, prefer stability to idealism. Obama continues to lose trust and relevance in the region.

Now, does the Asad regime represent a prefereable status quo for Israel?

Israel may savage Obama because in the Israeli world view he is making inept and incorrect moves within the region. But as difficult, if not impossible, as it is for the US to get it right, the same is true for Israel. No matter how smart and incisive the Israeli understanding is of Asad and the situation in Syria, Israel cannot possibly benefit under any of the possible outcomes within Syria and the region. Even war will not clarify the muddle that has become the region.

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

Two points:

1) The Muslim-Arabs keep slaughtering their young; from Tunisia and Libya to Yemen and Bahrain; from the streets of Cairo to the cities and towns of Syria, in the thousands. Think for a moment what the very same forces would do to the Jewish young of Israel if they had the opportunity to place their hands on them…!!

2) Mr. B.H.Obama continues to demonstrate how inept he is when it comes to the handling of international affairs in general and the affairs of the Middle East and North Africa in particular. He has been known to have turned his back on strong and long-term allies of the US worldwide, be it in eastern Europe, in Latin America, in the far east and even in Britain. In the Middle East has has insulted the leaders of both Egypt and Israel, but has had not a single bad word to say about Assad of Syria and a few other similar leaders. Having been a community organizer of course didn’t train him for international affairs. His “sitting under” the Rev. J. Wright, and his long association with the likes of Min. L. Farakhan, and Profs. E. Said and R. Khalidi have, however stained his thinking, among which is to keep a deep-rooted hostility towards the nation-state of the Jewish people, its leaders, its institutions and therefore towards the people whose nation-state Israel is, the Jewish people.

Mike says:

Learn about Israel’s most important STRATEGIC ASSET – Samaria.

Read all about it here:


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As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has cracked down on his own people, Washington has turned a blind eye for fear of what new regime might emerge. But it’s impossible for a new leader to be worse.

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